Keynote Address: Narrative Matters

Jim Dubinsky, Executive Director of the Association for Business Communication asked if I would present the Keynote Address at the Association’s 2015 meeting in Seattle, WA. I agreed forthwith.

From the Association for Business Communication website:

Join us in welcoming Skip Walter, of the TAI Group, for his keynote address:

Narrative Matters: The Invisible Source of Business

After you reunite with friends and colleagues at the Wednesday evening reception join Skip Walter to experience how narrative matters for individual talent, fluid teams, and purpose driven corporations.  His keynote address begins at 8:00 p.m.

“Reflecting on my time as CEO, I now more fully understand Dan Pink’s assertion that “to sell is human.” I had divided my days equally between selling equity to investors, selling our product to customers, and selling our company to our talent. At the heart of all good selling is a story, but not every story form works. Selling is driven by authentic stories that engage the audience and invite them to join in co-creating the narrative.

Skip’s role as Director of Innovation for the New York-based leadership and performance consulting firm The TAI Group, is to produce research and products where interactive digital technology meets the transformation of corporate performance. With the TAI Group, executives tap their inner resources to create meaningful stories that impact their connection to their colleagues and their customers. Successful leaders realize the importance of collecting, curating, and shaping their stories into powerful narratives, driving their business forward with meaning and purpose.

About Skip Walter and his innovative work with the TAI Group:

Skip and TAI’s vision is to radically improve productivity, using visual analytics and virtual reality so leaders and teams can communicate and collaborate beyond current limitations of space and time.

He’s been preparing for this challenge over the past 45 years as a serial innovator, entrepreneur and mentor capitalist in the USA, United Kingdom, Russia and Canada. After a solid grounding in large software project management for Fortune 100 corporations, he developed ALL-IN-1, Digital Equipment Corporation’s $1 billion a year integrated enterprise office automation system. After this success, he was selected as Vice President of Engineering for Aldus (now Adobe) Corporation.

As founding CEO and CTO of Attenex, Skip pioneered visual analytics of enterprise unstructured content in the legal eDiscovery market. Attenex was sold to FTI Consulting in 2008 for $91 million. As a serial entrepreneur, Skip raised more than $25 million in new venture funding for software companies in the office automation, medical and legal fields.

The Keynote Address

We are explorers of the world.

From the ABC website, we’ve come together this week to “explore our unique approaches to serving our profession of business communication”.

Some of us are discovering Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for the first time.

Many of us are here to discover the people who are exploring the boundaries and depths of business communication.

I am here to collect stories of business communicators and look for patterns that might form a narrative arc of business communication.

Actually, Jim Dubinsky gave me quite explicit instructions for why I am here tonight. “I want you to describe the universe and give three examples and you have ten minutes – after a two hour networking session with alcohol.”

Thanks to Jim  –  We are all explorers of the universe now.

TS Eliot shared in The Four Quartets:

ts eliot four quartets

An explorer has many roles. She is curious. She is always observing.  She is always looking for patterns. Yet the most important role is to come back home and share the stories of exploration to her audiences. The good explorers among us are able to weave those stories into a compelling narrative to inspire others to explore.

An explorer experiences first and makes meaning second. Telling stories and creating narratives are a powerful way of sharing experiences and creating meaning.

Let’s create some experiences and make a little meaning.

We are just playing and experiencing here.  There is no right way. There is no right process.  Just go with the flow.  If you don’t understand the instructions, just make something up.

Exercise 1 – Personal Reflections

Take a moment to reflect on the following questions.

  • Why are you in your current organization?
  • Why are you the right person for your role now?
  • Why are you in the industry you are in?
  • What are you eager to explore at the conference this week?

Exercise 2 – The Networking Exercise

This is a get up and move exercise.  Let’s stand.

This is a pair wise exercise. Quickly, find someone that you don’t know or know the least in the audience and pair up with them.

Now that you’ve found your exercise partner, take 10 seconds to introduce yourself to each other.

I would like all of you to think about a story of why you are passionate about business communication.

One of you will go first – be the speaker.  The other will be the audience first. One of you volunteer to speak first.

The other of you, the audience, will do your best to NOT LISTEN.  Use all of your weapons of MASS DISTRACTION – like your phone or your watch or your purse or backpack or the positioning of your body.


OK speaker 1 go.

Reverse the positions of speaker and listener.

Speaker 2 go.

Thanks for being such wonderful networkers.

For making some meaning, I’m looking for feelings, not the content that was exchanged just now.

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the speaker?

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the listener?

Thanks for your excellent networking participation.

Exercise 3 – Deep Listening

My surprise when encountering TAI’s methods was the emphasis on what it means to be an engaged audience and the role of the audience in any authentic interaction. To be a good audience means to deeply listen.  Part of deep listening is to listen without the motor running.  Listening without trying to figure out what you are going to say next. To see, hear and feel what is present in the speaker without the many layers of interpretation we normally bring to an interaction.

To warm up for the exercise, deeply see and observe your paired partner.  Observe their objects of clothing and adornment – WITHOUT INTERPRETATON. What are they wearing? Colors? Materials? Mentally describe to yourself objects like the shoes that they have on? The color? The Style? The material?  WITHOUT INTERPRETATION.

Just as you oriented yourself to deeply observing, now I want the listener, the audience, to listen with all three information bearing senses – seeing, hearing, feeling – to what the speaker is communicating.  Pay attention to the words and to the qualities of their voice and to how their story is carried in their body.

attentive listening

Speaker 1 go.

OK, take a few seconds for both speaker and listener to take a few deep breaths.

Reverse roles. Speaker 2 go.

I know this is too short a time and there is more to share.  Make an appointment with each other to continue the sharing.

Now graciously thank your partner for sharing their story.

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the listener?

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the speaker?

Would somebody like to share what the comparison of the two listening exercises FELT like?

Would somebody like to share what they noticed about the whole group qualities during the two exercises?  What did the whole room energy feel like?

Story Telling, Making Meaning and Creating Organizational Narratives

Narrative Matters.

Narrative matters in almost every aspect of business.

Narrative is the hidden and generative engine of business.

In keeping with the themes for our conference and tonight’s exercises, I’d like to share a few of the chapters of my journey to exploring and discovering the hidden power of narrative in business.

Tell Me A Story

For 10 years until 9/11, I made weekly one day trips between Seattle and Chicago during the school year to teach at the Institute of Design. One of my favorite pracademic colleagues was Larry Keeley of the Doblin Group and Deloitte Touche.  Pracademic is a shorthand for a practitioner who is also an academic. It is also shorthand for not being able to figure out what you want to do with your life.

tell me a story

Having four hours on a plane each week to reflect on our product development activities and customer interactions at our startup, I would invent all kinds of new software opportunities. I couldn’t wait to get to the Institute of Design and share these cool ideas with Larry.  Each time, Larry would listen to me for about 30 seconds and then he’d interrupt “Skip, Stop! Tell me a story about what a customer needs and how they’d use your new idea.” Just that simple command would get me out of technology centric thinking and into human centered design.

Tell me a story.

Larry knew what took me a while to figure out – you can’t tell a story without bringing in human beings.

How do we find the good Story Tellers?

In June of 2013, Brian, the director of Seattle’s startup incubator Impact Hub, asked if I would meet with one of his startup teams. We agreed to meet at my favorite Seattle restaurant, Wild Ginger – just down the hill, for some pro bono mentoring. We inhaled the smells of Pan Asian dishes being prepared in an open kitchen, and explored the tastes of our chicken satay and Fragrant Duck. Our dishes were accompanied by my favorite delightfully aromatic 2010 Cayuse Syrah.

what is the story

The price for this sensory experience was to listen patiently as the two entrepreneurs described their cool new mobile iphone app. For two hours they droned on “blah blah blah” about their technology and how wonderful they were. Yet, they had no idea who their customer was or how they would monetize their app.

Did I mention that the food was great?

Suddenly one of the entrepreneurs asked “So what are you interested in, Skip?”

I decided to share my Living Legacy idea for making sense of my 30 terabytes of digital media on my desktop hard drives.  I want to leave some kind of interactive legacy for my grandchildren and my graduate students.

He responded “You have to move to New York.  You have to find a set of theater folks who also work with training corporate types.”

I looked at him like he was the stupidest person in the universe.

I blurted out “I hate theater folks, particularly actors. I hate the theater. I can’t stand New York City.”

“But for the sake of argument, why should I do something so insane at this point in my life?”

Ignoring my sarcasm, he replied “Because theater folks know how to craft and tell stories. And that is what you are trying to do.”

“Do you know any theater folks like that?”

“No, but I know they are in New York City.”

Great, just one more know it all bloviater.

I shook my head, stood up, and politely thanked Brian for the evening and walked out of the restaurant. The fine wine was gone.  Time to end my pain.

One year later in June of 2014, a colleague introduced me to the TAI Group in NYC. The initials TAI stand for The Actors Institute. They were interested in scaling their executive coaching business through interactive digital media and were looking for a partner. I agreed to come back and spend a week with the TAI team.

On a very hot summer day I navigated my way by NJ Transit train from my hotel at the Newark Airport to Penn Station. I emerged from the tunnels and throngs of sweaty irritated commuters to the blast of cars honking and street vendors hawking their wares on 7th avenue.  Making my way a couple of blocks to the TAI offices, I got off the elevator on the 14th floor expecting cubicle ville. What to my wondering eyes did appear was an inviting warm place with hardwood floors, all kinds of art work, and Oriental carpets that felt like home, not a sterile office building?

Audrey at the front desk gave me a big smile and said “you must be Skip. We are really looking forward to spending the week with you.”  What a welcome.

I immediately went into my first coaching session with Sam. I thought I was a pretty good communicator. I’d given many keynote addresses over the years. I’d raised a lot of venture capital money. I’ve taught and developed a lot of professional talent. Within 30 minutes, through a couple of exercises with Sam’s coaching and then with two other coaches sitting in as audience, I realized that there was so much to learn.

I’d found the theater folks that were foretold.

Now, I love the theater. I love actors and directors and play writers.

I am getting a graduate education in all facets of the live arts as I explore Broadway, off Broadway, off off Broadway (otherwise known as Brooklyn), regional theater, and musical readings for friends and family from out of work theater professionals in the nooks and crannies of the five Boroughs.

And I even love going to New York. Go figure.

Who knew there was such a wide range of the live arts and different forms of storytelling?

Y’all know that, don’t you?  Where have you been all my life?

Narrative Matters.

What Story does an Audience Hear?

With permission from a venture capitalist and a startup CEO, I recorded the CEO’s first funding pitch. Using an iPhone to stream video to the Amazon Cloud through FeedbackPanel software from BlinkUX, we captured and analyzed the meeting in real-time as part of our mentoring of the first time CEO.

The CEO came armed with his 40+ Powerpoint slides for the one-hour meeting. The CEO launched into his pitch while I took detailed notes on my Livescribe Pen and Notebook. The VC listened attentively for a few minutes and then started asking a stream of questions.

The meeting ended with an offer from the VC for the CEO to come back and visit in a few weeks with an update on his customer traction.

As we walked to the elevator, I asked the CEO how many questions he thought the VC asked him during the session. “If you hadn’t asked me I would have said 1 or 2,” the CEO responded.  “However since you asked me, he probably asked 5 to 7 questions.”

“Would you believe he asked you 76 questions during the 60 minutes,” I shared.  “Further, four times during the session after he asked you a question, you paused and looked away and mentally left the room. The time that you were not engaged was so long that the VC started reading and answering emails on his smart phone.  Where did you mentally go?”

“No way did I break engagement with the VC,” the CEO huffed.

“Let’s go back to the office and look at the video,” I suggested.

While we were in the meeting, my colleague, Scott, was watching the live streaming video through FeedbackPanel marking and annotating the video when the VC asked questions.  He noted when there were breaks in the engagement of the conversation, and identified where there were new insights.

As we entered the CEO’s office, Scott pulled up the video of the session along with a downloaded list of the 76 questions that were asked. He had marked the four times when the CEO paused his engagement with the VC. We replayed each of those breaks in the action so that the CEO could see the VC doing his email while engagement was broken.

BlinkUX Feedback Panel Viewing Panel with automatic transcription

BlinkUX Feedback Panel Viewing Panel with automatic transcription

Now we had the CEO’s attention and he was ready to learn how to move from “pitching” to authentically communicating and collaborating with his audience.  The CEO got to see AND experience his lack of impact on his very important audience.

It is very difficult to both perform AND be aware of your impact on the audience.

Whether with my peers or my graduate students or mentoring senior executives or startup CEOs, taking notes and providing verbal feedback has very little impact on future behaviors. With the advent of mobile and easy to use video capture capabilities, now every meeting or interaction can be turned into an opportunity for mentoring with tools like Feedback Panel and skilled coaches – either in real time or after the fact.

The art form is to point and focus the camera on the audience, not on the speaker.

Communication is the results that we get; not the words that we speak.

Narrative Matters in Business.

How do I Own My Story?

As part of my immersion into learning how to communicate with power and presence, I established a reciprocal learning contract with TAI’s CEO. He agreed to mentor and coach me in the TAI methods and I agreed to mentor and coach him in his new role as CEO.

Midway through my coaching of the CEO, it was time to share with his executive team our work in creating a new company.  The new company translates the face to face executive coaching into interactive digital media. Unfortunately, due to previous commitments I could not be physically or remotely present at the meeting. I asked that the meeting be videoed so I could view it later and provide coaching for the CEO.

Before looking at the video, I asked the CEO how he thought the meeting went. He shared “it went great. I was really proud of the story I put together and how we explained all the content you’ve shared with us over the last three months. It was one of the best meetings that we’ve had.”

A week later I got the video of the three-hour meeting. As the meeting progressed, I was appalled and then I became frustrated, and livid and angry. Several times I had to stop the recording and grab a drink of lemon water to calm myself down. I had no idea how I was going to give asset based feedback and reinforce what was positive about the meeting.

I decided to take a self-reflection approach to providing feedback.  I sent the CEO a homework assignment to watch the video from the perspective of “optimal ignorance” like he would do with one of his corporate CEO clients. I asked him to look at what he did and how his audience responded during the three hours. I asked him to capture what advice he would give to that CEO if he were a client?

We met later on a Skype web conference call. I asked how he thought the meeting went upon reviewing the video?

I got almost the same answer. “It went really well.  There was a little bit of confusion about some of the valuation frameworks that you shared with us, but otherwise it went really well. I got really good feedback from the execs after the meeting.”

Now, I was really confused as several of his executives had contacted me after the meeting wondering what was really happening.

OK, that homework assignment didn’t work so well. There was still considerable delusion by the CEO about his performance and impact on the executive team.

In the pressure of the moment, I asked “whose story did you tell?”

The CEO responded “the story of the new company.”

“What I heard and saw was Skip’s story. You credited everything that has happened over the last several months to Skip. You never took ownership of the story. Yet, all along our journey you’ve told me story after story of why TAI realized it needed to get into interactive digital media in order to scale your business. Your stories attracted me to wanting to partner with you. You’ve tried many different experiments to move your practices into a digital environment. Some worked to an extent, but most did not work. You are the ones that realized that you didn’t have the expertise to go into this new medium. And you went out and found me.”

“What I think I learned from the many TAI workshops and your wonderful mentoring is that I have to own my story. I have to get the content of my story into my body and into my voice so that it becomes authentically mine. Did I miss something?”

brene brown owning our story

The CEO looked down and paused for a few uncomfortable minutes.

He broke the silence with a heartfelt “Thank you.”

He then went on “We previously scheduled a similar session for our whole company for this Friday. Now, we get the opportunity to re-write the story AND OWN it.”

He rewrote the story and went even further by turning the session into an experiential learning environment rather than a sit down lecture.

He owned his story and designed an experience using their well-researched and proven methods for authentic communication and teamwork.

It is exciting to watch TAI’s transformation. Terrific work is coming out of all parts of the company.  Each employee owns the collective narrative and through their experiential workshop each employee has made it their own story.

The two patterns that repeat as I work with a wide range of professional services firms large and small are:

  • little ownership of their own stories, their own authentic stories.
  • And not using their own methods and processes to operate their business.

How do we create Organizational Narratives?

Sitting around a conference table in a hip glass conference room high above Central Park drinking our espressos, we explored the difference between branding strategy and corporate narratives.  We joined with the CEO and Chief Strategy Officer of a large international brand strategy agency. I asked them if they would share the process, artifacts and results of a recent engagement with a large commercial real estate broker. My TAI colleague, Graeme, and I had interviewed both the CEO of the Brand Strategy agency and the client CMO for our research for a white paper on “Is the soft stuff of business really the hard stuff?”

Like the earlier story with the CEO and VC, I gained permission to set up the iphone mobile video streaming app to record our meeting and to allow Graeme and me to take time stamped notes during the session.

The CEO walked us through a slide deck of the brand strategy artifact they presented to their client while describing the process of how they arrived at the recommended strategy.  Graeme and I were amazed at how similar their process was to the process that we use at TAI to help corporate clients understand their corporate narrative and narrative arc.

They described the highlights of the 30 client executive interviews and 40 external customer and influencer interviews. I asked if they’d recorded any of these sessions.  The Chief of Strategy said “No. We just took notes. We find that recording and transcribing the recordings is a waste of time, energy and money.”

I asked if at any time during these interviews there was incredible passion or energy or excitement or displeasure. Were there any forms of strong emotion?

They laughed and said “All the time.”

I then asked how that emotion translated into their brand strategy artifact and text notes they created.

“Not very well” they answered.

“What if by just doing what you are already doing you could video record each interview and then use a wide range of analytics like an automatic transcript generator, automatic facial expression analytics for 16 types of emotion, and narrative theme analytics? The analytics let you quickly search through the videos and your time stamped notes to find the themes and the emotional high points.  Then you can mark those insightful moments and include the actual audio and video snippets in your strategy artifact.”

build a narrative

They laughed and the CEO said “That’s some nice science fiction, Skip.  What are you smoking out there in Washington state?”

I turned my laptop around and showed them the live streaming recording we’d started at the beginning of the meeting with our time stamped notes and the automatically generated transcript.

I searched the transcript for the emotional and energy high points and found that the system had caught ten of them. I clicked on the first one and up came 30 seconds of video of the CEO sharing how excited the client was with the brand strategy they developed.

The CEO and Chief of Strategy both started talking simultaneously and then stopped abruptly. The strategy chief shared “I can think of a 100 ways to use this immediately. The first way is with this client. Since we did the initial 9-month project, we’ve done six follow on projects and interviewed 200 more customers worldwide. But it was too expensive and too hard to look across the themes of the now 240 customers we’ve interviewed. With this tool we can now see the narrative themes and how they’ve changed over the last 18 months as the implementation of the brand strategy is rolled out.”

After several more “Oh my gods” and excited brain storming, we’d learned a lot more about their corporate narrative and brand strategy process.  Not just by what the brand strategy agency had done, and not just by what we’d done with our clients, but how quickly we could envision together our Narrative Arcs and our Clients’ Narrative arcs with powerful real time analytics.

By just doing what we already do!

This interaction mirrors Dan Pink’s description of a successful pitch in his book To Sell is Human.  A successful pitch is a collaboration between the pitcher and the catcher (the audience). The object of the pitch is to get to collaborating with the audience quickly.


Narrative matters.  Narrative is the hidden and generative engine of business.

We are all explorers.

Our role is to be curious, follow our curiosity, make meaning by finding patterns and themes, and MOST IMPORTANTLY share our stories with our audiences – authentically and with impact.

hero journey

A good explorer:

  • Is curious
  • Tells well-formed Human Stories
  • Seeks to understand what the audience experienced from their story
  • Owns their story

A good explorer helps their organization understand their narrative arc by finding common themes and values emergent from the stories generated from our three starting questions in our first exercise tonight:

  • Why my organization?
  • Why me now?
  • Why this industry?

During the remainder of the conference, I suggest you explore the stories that others have for you. Seek out at least four people at the conference or around Seattle that have an important message for your personal development and your personal narrative arc.  Discover the four people at the conference that you have an important story for their personal development.

As T. S. Eliott reminds us:

ts eliot four quartets

Thank you for sharing your power and presence with me this evening.

I look forward to exploring your stories during the next couple of days.

Narrative Matters.

Resources to Learn More about Narrative Matters

The following books were helpful in learning about Narrative Matters.


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collaborate: create – A Forward Flux Production

In the center of the Fremont Abbey Arts Center Main Floor, a 9 x 12 foot cotton mat is laid out carefully midway through collaborate:create.

A young man silently passes a young woman on the mat. This pantomime repeats for several iterations.  As each iteration occurs, the young man shows more and more interest in the young woman. She increasingly shows frustration and tries to create distance.

It takes me a while, but I realize I am in the midst of the rhythms of urban dwellers who have  regular schedules and who start noticing the patterns of other interesting humans.

At each pass back and forth on the mat, the man tries to entice the woman into an interaction while she rebuffs his advances.

A shrill bell dings.

The actors change to a new scene.

The young man starts the poem “Ascension” by Benjamin Benne.

“the heart is in the money
the heart
is in
the money

the veins are in the fibers
but there is no blood

so is there a heart at all?

the tongue is in the concrete
the tongue
is in
the concrete

the taste buds in the grit
but there is no flavor

so is there a tongue at all?”

I am fully enthralled and in the moment. I am tasting the urban grit.  I am visualizing the urban environment in portraits the actors and the poet are so richly creating.

At regular intervals, the shrill bell dings and the actors shift to a new scene and the next stanzas of the poem.

There is a break while the actors rearrange the rectangular mat by 90 degrees. The next stanzas of the poem are a counter point to the machines of the city as they climb into the trees and get away from the voices of the machines.

“and I run toward the trees
up up up
the staircase
away from the machines
up up up
toward the trees

I come to the place
the high place
the quiet place

no voices of machines hear

The shrill bell dings.

The actors rearrange the mat to the city scape.

The voices of the machines return.

As the piece finishes dramatically and the audience melts away, I am riveted to the floor. I can’t move as the sounds of the other artists’ exhibits and the musicians wash over me.

In these short ten minutes, I’ve experienced 25 years of what I’ve missed by visiting the Seattle urban scape for work during the day while retreating home every evening to our “high place” on Bainbridge Island.

As I slowly rotate in place and look more deeply at the art installations and reflect on the short plays downstairs in the theater, I see 21 stories. Each of the artists created in their medium a new work of art – sculpture, painting, poetry, plays, and interactive displays. Each story was complete in itself.

Yet, there was a powerful narrative being built, piece by piece, experience by experience around the theme of gentrification at this collaborate:create.

Gentrification, noun, “the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.”

What I viewed as progress all these decades has a mirror image – gentrification.

Here in this crucible of the live arts, the gentrification narrative cut through the bloviators and talking heads of mass media and politics to help me deeply, viscerally see the unseeable of my daily life.

Thank you to Benjamin Benne, Sherri Brown, Anthony Phillips and Emma Watt for your powerful performance of the dramatic poem “Ascension.”

Thank you Wesley Fruge for your deep commitment to the Live Arts. Thank you Katherine James Schuitemaker for your continuous prodding to help me experience the fringes and thought provoking edges of the Live Arts.


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On Mediating

“Mediating doesn’t fit in that sequence,” Gifford (Yoda) Booth shared.

We were asked to take our essential internal creative process and reflect on it to make sure that it was complete. I’d just finished presenting my homework assignment on what I find enchanting. I knew that something was missing surrounding my mediation mantra of “moving-flowing-flowering” and mediating was as close to it as I could sort out in the moment.

Rainbow glass reflecting and refracting

Rainbow glass reflecting and refracting

I’d added a beginning and end concept to my mantra – “seeing (internal) – moving – flowing – flowering – mediating.”

“Mediating is an external concept and would fit better with your external compass and creative process,” Gifford offered.

My colleague, Chris Strong, added “mediating means to ‘intervene between people in a dispute’ and that is clearly an external phenomena.”

“I mean mediating in the sense of McLuhan‘s ‘the medium is the message’. In order to think about something more deeply, I need to get it out of my head so I can see it. Once I see it, it comes back into my head a different way. When I really need to think through something (seeing), I have to stand at a white board or a flip chart (moving) and draw objects (flowing) and their relationships (flowering). Kind of like I did with my ‘vine root’ process (mediating),” I explained.

Communicating with self

As we neared the end of our 12 session, TELL seminar, one of the themes that kept repeating as it was brought to the surface of the explicit, is my need to mediate my thoughts. In this session, I described by internal process of mediating by getting things out of my head. In other homework assignments, a clear process of external mediating became much clearer.

Whenever I go to create something, I quickly (so quickly that most of the time I miss it consciously) go through a process of what am I trying to communicate, to what audience, and what tool should I use to mediate the content. Usually the mediation is some form of Powerpoint slide deck or a Word document or occasionally an Excel spread sheet when I need to work with numbers. Sometimes the media is a blog post or Facebook post. Other times, I use the mediation step as an excuse to see if there is a tool that I am not aware of that would be a better choice than the standard Microsoft Office tools.

In an earlier assignment, I wanted to pull some video clips together in a more interactive way for the observer. I didn’t want a static video that I could produce with an Adobe Premier or an Animoto. I wanted something that was more interactive. That search led me to the great tool Zaption which was pretty close to what I wanted.

For today’s assignment, I spent a couple of hours looking to see what story telling tools were available since the last time I searched six months ago. I love these intentional quixotic searches for new tools in the context of what I want to mediate. I had a flip chart full of the content ideas I wanted to express and knew my audience, but I didn’t want to do a simple Powerpoint presentation. In the search and quick evaluation of tools I tripped over, I came across Exposure.

For this homework assignment, it was pretty close to what I was looking for.  I could add photos and videos and surround them with some explanatory text. The tool also used the scrolling navigating promoted by the “look and feel” of Apple’s website. I was able to express or mediate the completely inexpressible – my inner creative process – to myself and to my companions on the TELL journey.

As I am learning in The TELL, a process for revealing the artistry in everyone in order to give voice to inner vision, my inner creative process is unique to me. Yet, until this moment, I didn’t realize how important “mediating” was to my inner muse.

Seeing – Moving – Flowing – Flowering – Mediating.

I look forward to meditating On Mediating in preparation for my next assignment.

Thank you, Yoda.


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Lifelet: The Many Grays of Puget Sound

If we can just slow down and sit and watch the early morning slide by, the many grays of Puget Sound emerge. The grays are in the clouds, and the water, and the seagulls that fly by.

Enjoy the emergence of an early morning view of the Puget Sound from Bainbridge Island.

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Lifelet: The Three Stages of a Catholic Mass

On a recent Sunday, we had the present of the presence of our oldest grandchild. Young Alice was kind enough to join us for the 10am mass.

As we snuggled into the last row of the church, Alice climbed on my lap and enjoyed the opening hymn. She settled in for the good news from the gospel reading.

Liturgy of the Word

Liturgy of the Word

Somewhere between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the sand man arrived and gently closed our little angel’s eyes.

Liturgy of the Eucharist

Liturgy of the Eucharist

As the mass arrived at the interminable announcements and concluding hymn, our young angel decided enough was enough. The mass was ended and we enjoyed going in peace.

Concluding Rite

Concluding Rite

Posted in Family, Grand parenting, Lifelet | 1 Comment

The Lost Boy – Living Legacy

lost boy play icon“I’ve asked the Chili Boys here tonight to help me tell this story. It’s someone else’s story to be sure but in the telling we’ve now become part of it. We’re now part of the fabric of the thing so it’s only right that they be here and play for you their part of this memory. This is a memory, after all. It all happened. Though because it’s memory, it probably isn’t factual. So, if I contradict myself, if you catch me saying the opposite of what I just swore was true, if you find me standing smack in the middle of a paradox, it’s not that I’m lying to you. It’s a memory. Something that happened, something that was told to me over and over again in the dark of night after a glass of wine or two, something that was told to me because, at the time, there was no one else to tell, something that was told to me because the memory of it was about to get lost in the way that all memories are finally lost. And that’s why we’re here. Play us in Boys.”

With that introduction, David Robinson, began his world premier of The Lost Boy David has shared parts of this story with me for years. I was finally seeing the play. Yet, I immediately got lost in the phrase “though because it’s memory, it probably isn’t factual.” This simple statement puts into perspective my challenge with sharing my stories. It’s my memory. Probably not factual.

What follows is from my memory. These things happened. But it’s my memory, so the facts are probably mixed up.

While David and I worked on FlippedStartup and Flip! comics, we came up with too many ideas for the time and resources that we had. As a first time grandparent, I started deeply thinking about my legacy for the first time. I came up with the idea for “Email Alice” an app that would let me send emails, photos, videos, documents and other artifacts to our granddaughter. As young Alice grew up, she could interact with the application to ask questions to her granddad and it would answer in relevant stories.

As I shared this idea with David, he immediately connected to his experiences with Tom McKenzie and the many stories he shared with Tom about the Lost Boy. I’d listen to David’s thoughts and how they connected to Email Alice, but I didn’t get it. I’m not much of a history buff, so telling me a story about life on a California Ranch 100 years ago paled in comparison to all the cool digital technology I could bring to bear for Email Alice. There was no way it was the same.

Soon David and I parted ways as he moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to be with his fiance Kerri Sherwood. We wished each other well and hoped that we would stay in touch. David was a gift for me in helping provide guidance and feedback on my book Emails to a Young Entrepreneur. Then, Tom McKenzie grew sicker and an urgency overcame David to finalize the script and production of the Lost Boy.

I still didn’t get it. I didn’t see the connections. I didn’t understand why David was so driven to do this play.

As time passed and as richer technology capabilities became available and as I met the great folks at the TAI Group, I saw a larger picture for what Email Alice could become. The TAI Group is in the business of coaching seniors executives on leadership and authentic communication at corporations like Boston Consulting Group, Elsevier, NetApp, Cognizant, Google, and Cengage. As part of learning to more authentically communicate, I experienced more powerful ways of generating a legacy system.

Email Alice morphed into a larger vision that I call Living Legacy.

I supported David with a small contribution to his Kickstarter projects to get the play produced. Through the good will, services and donation of space at the University of the Pacific, David had the resources to produce his play. I followed his regular updates for his kickstarter project. Both the Stockton Record (“Honoring an Old Friend“) and the Lodi News (“Two-person show about family and legacy to premiere in Stockton“) wrote “memories” (in David’s sense of the word) about the Lost Boy.

At the last minute I paid attention to the date of the production – February 13 and 14. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be in San Francisco that weekend to babysit for my youngest granddaughter, Hazel. Finding out that Stockton was only a 90 minute drive away, I called the phone number from the theater to see if there were any tickets left. I thought I was calling the theater. Instead, Kerri answered the phone. I let her know that I could make it to the play and that our mutual friend Barney Barnett would be able to attend as well. We decided to keep it a secret from David so that we could surprise him at the play.

david tom and demarcus

Demarcus, Tom, and David

I met Barney outside of the DeMarcus Brown theater (named for a mutual friend of David and Tom). We walked into the “black box” theater. We took our seats on the back row of the risers and were quickly caught up in the Americana music of Mom’s Chili Boys.

Mom's Chili Boys

Mom’s Chili Boys

As the theater went dark, I wondered where David and Kerri would enter the stage. I looked to my left and saw them standing just inside the closed door to the theater. Kerri and I made eye contact then she nudged David and pointed to Barney and me. It was a very special treat to see David’s look of surprise and then appreciation as he saw that both Barney and I had made the trek to Stockton for his world premiere.

As the first act quickly unfolded, I was seeing many of my thoughts about Living Legacy take shape and be transformed before my eyes. As part of my work with the TAI Group, I’ve been getting an immersive graduate education in the theater and live arts. What wasn’t a very engaging story for me when David would share a summary or share some of his interviews with Tom, became alive, living and very deep as he and Kerri acted out the story.

A long ago colleague asked me once if I knew the mark of a good Jew. He shared that it isn’t enough if a Jew keeps the faith, or if his children keep the faith. The mark of a good Jew is whether his children’s children keep the faith. Think of all the things that must happen for a faith to be passed through even three generations. In front of me, I was experiencing a story of a family’s legacy being passed through many generations. But with Tom’s passing, would the legacy of the Lost Boy be passed along?

In the narrator role, David shared that Tom had asked for his help in taking his first person one actor play that was meant for Tom to perform and shape the beginning and the end. Tom couldn’t figure out how to do the beginning and the end. Where do the individual stories of our life begin and end? Our physical life is bookended by birth and death. When we go to tell a piece of our life story where do we begin?

In that moment, I realized the fundamental challenge of a Living Legacy app – how do you select a snippet of a life? When somebody asks a question, where do you start the story? Where do you end the story?

As Gregory Bateson described in Mind and Nature:

“There is a story which I have used before and shall use again: A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private large computer. He asked it (no doubt in his best Fortran), “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words:


“A story is a little knot or complex of that species of connectedness which we call relevance. In the 1960s, students were fighting for ‘relevance,’ and I would assume that any A is relevant to any B if both A and B are parts or components of the same ‘story’. Again we face connectedness at more than one level: First, connection between A and B by virtue of their being components in the same story. And then, connectedness between people in that all think in terms of stories. (For surely the computer was right. This is indeed how people think.)”

With a mixture of narration, acting out the characters of the women and men in Tom’s life, bouncing across centuries and the ever present undercurrent of banjo, mandolin, and guitars from Mom’s Chili Boys, the first act flew by. I don’t know if it was because of the great script, the acting, the music, or the questions and insights that were triggered in my mind. However, I will give all credit to the magic of David Robinson as playwright, actor, director, and producer. I was in awe of what he produced in front of my eyes and even more so of the concepts that were forming and reforming in my mind about what it means to leave a legacy.

Late in the first act David shared:

“And maybe, this whole trunk scheme was an effort to contain it – if you can’t make sense of it at least contain it. Tom told me that people need to contain their life, to know what they are doing – put some parameters around it and make it make sense – it is an undercurrent in everyone’s life at some point, for some people at many points and some people all the time trying to figure out who they are and where they’re going.

“So, telling this story to you, the story of a box, what if I was to say to you, “I’m going to give you a box of such and such a size and its all that is going to be allowed to present any evidence that you were on this earth – a primitive footprint –  all you get is a cardboard box that comes from FedEx – what are you going to put in it? What are you going to put in it for sure? A driver’s license? A birth certificate – that’s proof that you were here. A passport? But how about, what would you put in that was all about you, that makes you different from all of the others – that’s not just an official record but caught the essence of who you were. What would you put in it? What would you put in?

“What would you put in your box? Here’s a better question: What would your mother put in your box? Would you be tempted to scrub your life of its messiness? Would she? Would you eliminate the mundane? The everyday? What would you put in your box? Think about it. What do you keep now – all around you – that somehow tells others who you are? What collections anchor you in time?”

Barney and I wandered outside during intermission and listened to the conversations of the audience. In Barney’s inimitable way he reached out to a gentleman standing near us and asked if he knew Tom. The man replied that he had not known Tom, but that he was good friends with Mom’s Chili Boys and had attended Lincoln High School. He shared “most of the people in the audience attended Lincoln High.”

After the play, David was in awe of all the people that came up to him both nights who brought artifacts (photos, toys, letters) from family scrap books of the times of the Lost Boy. David was overwhelmed by the many ways that the play was touching the people and communities surrounding Stockton.

The second act began with the loud clang of a cow bell. David narrated:

“There is a cow-bell that still hangs in the rafters of the ranch house – above Isabelle’s bedroom. In her last year, when she was quite old, years after Johnny died, 30 years before Tom was born, she fell and broke a hip. She was bed-ridden for the rest of her life. This farm woman – unable to get out of bed. The family needed to find a way for her to communicate when she needed something – especially when they were out in the field or in the barn; this was decades before cell phones or walkie-talkies.”

As the second act progressed, it became clear that this was the story of two Lost Boys, one was Isabelle’s 10 year old child and one was her infant brother who died as they were about to start a wagon train trip West. The concept of Living Legacy twisted again before my eyes.

I now was in the land of patterns, patterns that repeat. I admit that I don’t remember several minutes of the play at this point as I tried to connect Living Legacy to where to begin and where to end a story and wondering whether patterns that repeat is an important part of the transition from a story to a narrative arc.

Kerri’s multiple personas of Bunty and Isabelle brought me back from my reverie. She is such an accomplished performer as a musician and singer. As I listen to my iPod music on my long walks, I eagerly await another of Kerri’s vocals to boost my energy. “As Sure as the Sun” is a particular favorite. I confess I spent the whole play waiting for Kerri to burst into song with the backup of Mom’s Chili Boys. I was blown away after the play when Kerri shared that this was the first time she’d ever done professional acting and “had to follow” someone else’s words. Kerri, you are a master already of the acting craft.

All too soon the play ended with David’s final narration:

“Here’s a bit of indulgence on my part because, like Tom, I wonder where this story ends. In my notes early on, after he asked me to help him, I wrote that, “Tom is now, like Bunty, standing on the roof of the ranch house. It is a very windy day, the kind of day that fences blow down and windmills tip.” I imagined him standing on the roof. He had a cowbell and he was ringing it and ringing it and ringing it. He rang it because he needed them to come. He needed to know what he should do. Should he light a fire? Should he let the winds blow their good story away? Or should he find some other way to anchor them in time? They came. Bess and Bunty came running, and Pa Tom, too.  Isabelle came. And Johnny, too. Thomas Lewins and Elizabeth. They brought Seth, and Sam, and a great River.  And then, Bess and Bunty, Pa Tom, Isabelle, Johnny, Thomas and Elizabeth, took his hand and helped him join the story.

“This is a memory, after all. It all happened. It is something and was told to me over and over again in the dark of night after a glass of wine or two, something that was told to me because, at the time, Tom believed there was no one else to tell, something that was told to me because the memory of it was about to get lost in the way that all memories are finally lost. And, I guess, that’s why we’re here. Play us out Boys.”

Mom’s Chili Boys invited the audience to come down and join in the continuing conversation. After a few minutes, David and Kerri came out and we shared great hugs. It had been a year since I’d seen David and Kerri and it was as if time stood still. Barney made a nice presentation to David and the cast members of some Benziger Tribute wine sharing the story of how Mike Benziger creates this wine every year as a tribute to Bruno, his Marine gunnery sergeant father. We planted the seeds for enjoying the wine at the Lost Boy cast party first sown by Brian Doyle’s insightful quote from  The Grail:  A Year Ambling and Shambling through an Oregon Vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir wine in the Whole Wide World:

“On my way back uphill to my car I remember what Jesse told me once, that each vine produces enough grapes to make about three-fourths of a bottle of wine, and I chew on the idea that three-fourths of a bottle of excellent wine is probably just the right amount necessary for two or three people to start telling stories fast and furious,so that each of the vines I pass is pregnant with stories, some of which were never born into the world before, and this idea makes me happy also, so by the time I get to the town where I am supposed to give a talk I am cheerful as a chipmunk.

David and Kerri graciously invited us to join the cast party. However, I had a late night drive back to Menlo Park, CA to rejoin my wife for four days of our own legacy of getting to know our toddler 18 month old granddaughter.

Our next generation Hazel

Our next generation Hazel

For me, a really good play not only entertains, it provides insights into my own life and work. David and Kerri along with Mom’s Chili Boys provided the impetus to explore even further what a Living Legacy can become.

Thank you.

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Breaking the Book – in book form

Sometimes the absurdity of academics cracks me up. I came across a wonderful post this morning about the changing nature of history and the humanities – “Millions of Sources: the disruption of history and the humanities?

Brian Matthews introduced his post with:

“The humanities as we know them should be called the print humanities. They began with the rise of print materials and the practices and methodologies associated with them are bound to that format. Right now we have print humanities and digital humanities but eventually all humanities will be digital humanities. We’re in an evolutionary stage.”

Having written a post about “digital humanities” a couple of years ago, I was eager to see how academics were viewing the continuing evolution. Matthews referred to Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age by Laura Mandell.

I eagerly went to to purchase a Kindle version of the book. Oops.  The book was supposed to be published IN PRINT in April 2014.  Nothing there.  And there is only a pointer for a hardcover of the print version. There was no Kindle version.

At least Peter Meyers in his two versions of Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience published the Kindle version first. Yet, even Peter with his deep insights into the transformation of the print book to the digital book admits that he prefers the authoring and reading process for the print book.

Today I celebrate my transition from print to digital with this blog post. But first I must print it out so that I can edit it, and hold it, and get ink stains on my hands so that I know that I have really written something.

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose


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